The Atlanta Thrashers wrapped up their road trip today in San Jose, falling to the Sharks 3-1 in a game that saw a bit of everything that hockey fans enjoy.
There was plenty of physical play, some spectacular saves on both sides of the ice, and a fair share of nifty goals. There was even a fight, which pretty much wrapped up the rare afternoon contest at the Tank.
The Thrashers may have been defeated in this game, but they certainly didn’t back down from the challenge that comes with playing with the top home team in the NHL on their turf (or ice, if you insist on correctness).
While most recaps of this game are likely to focus on the Thrashers being overmatched by the Sharks, there were actually things that I saw that certainly are a good omen for the team in the future. Sure, they didn’t win, and are now 0-5-0 with a tie at the Tank, but the loss in this situation isn’t really what matters.
There are five things that hockey fans in Atlanta learned about the Thrashers during this trip. A couple of these are common sense, and some others require a little bit of reading between the lines.
1. The Thrashers are Not Quitting on This Season
Granted, this is something that is pretty easy to see when looking at the road trip as a whole (getting a majority of the available points certainly doesn’t indicate giving up), but it was especially evident today.
Beating the Kings in Los Angeles (which the Blackhawks have failed at twice this season), and also beating the Ducks in Anaheim were both big wins, but the emotional lift that this team could get from playing with the Sharks and not being bowled over by them could be more important than anything gained by those two victories.
Watching the first two periods, there was a lot to like about the Thrashers’ intensity. Every time the Sharks would send an enforcer in to check the much younger and less chippy Thrasher wingers, Atlanta’s veterans would return the favor on later trips down the ice. Sure, this resulted in several Thrasher penalties, but it also served as notice that this team is not laying down and dying for anyone.
2. Kari Lehtonen Is the Future Between the Pipes for Atlanta
Kari has been playing some splendid hockey since his benching against Philly a couple weeks ago, and he is playing like a guy who could be the future in net for the Thrashers.
He only gave up three goals to the second-highest scoring offense in the NHL against San Jose, and he also played magnificently against Phoenix on Thursday night. He single-handedly kept the Thrashers in that hockey game, even when they were down two goals in the second period. He also kept them in the shootout, stopping a bunch of shots until finally giving up a goal to Daniel Carcillo in the eight-round.
Kari also made a number of athletic saves today against the fierce Shark onslaught, and he also was playing fundamentally sound hockey. He wasn’t taking foolish routes behind the net to chase down pucks, and he was covering up immediately and trying not to give the Sharks any freebies on the porch. He showed me a lot of heart today, and he deserves a lot of credit and will be an asset in the future to this team.
3. Ilya Kovalchuk is Letting His Stick Do the Talking, and His Teammates Are Taking Notice
Ilya Kovalchuk had a magnificent road trip, scoring six goals (including a hat trick against Anaheim), and he has been playing with a chip on his shoulder ever since earning the captain’s “C”.
The thing that I’ve noticed more than simply the goals is that Kovalchuk’s intensity is rubbing off on his teammates. Guys like Bryan Little and Erik Christensen have been playing a lot harder lately, and the effort that the team is playing with has really been a sight for sore eyes. The fans of Atlanta can be proud of their captain, and their team.
Even coach John Anderson seems a lot more satisfied with the team’s effort. Even though the team is 18 points out of the last playoff spot (essentially dead), they are playing with the fire of a team in the midst of the playoff hunt, and Anderson is no longer talking about “crap-o-meters”, which is always welcome in the eyes of the fans.
4. Kovalchuk Is Committed To Winning in Atlanta
This is something that’s been going on longer than just this road trip, but something that folks who follow news conferences and interviews after practice have been noting more consistently is that Kovie is talking about next year more and more.
From what I’ve seen, him talking about being paired with Kozlov next year, and also about winning games now having a positive impact on the chances for next year, leads me to believe that Ilya is comfortable in Atlanta, and he seems pretty confident that he will be staying for a while.
I’m not saying that he will sign an extension in the off-season (we can only hope), but the possibility of him being traded before the deadline is pretty much dead and it’s looking less likely he’ll be dealt before the draft.
5. The Front Office is Making Shrewd Moves Instead of Team-breakers
Trading Mathieu Schneider to the Canadiens was something that was inevitable as far as I’m concerned. His age and expiring contract made moving him essential, and the team got a couple of draft picks back, including a second rounder in 2009 and a third rounder in 2010.
The front office is also being very careful about not wreaking havoc on the future of the club with bad trades, and I think this bodes well for next season. I have a feeling that they are keeping these younger players around to make the city a more intriguing place for free agents to consider coming to, and perhaps convincing some of the team’s impending free agents (Ilya Kovalchuk anyone?) to stick around and participate in a building process towards Cup contention.
The Thrashers are next in action on Tuesday night in a home skate against the Avalanche at 7pm EST. The game can be seen on Sports South, and you can also catch the game in person at Phillips Arena in Atlanta.